Dam-Nations: Ethiopia, Egypt, and the Nile River

In 1979, Egypt’s late President Anwar Sadat said, “the only matter that could take Egypt to war again is water.” Following Ethiopia’s recent announcement that it intends to construct Africa’s largest hydroelectric dam on the Nile River, the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, many have hastily concluded that Sadat’s premonition might just be put to the test. However, a closer analysis suggests that the inevitability of a Nile water war is dubious. While the issue of water-sharing in the region certainly seems like an intractable question, new institutional initiatives suggest that alternative frameworks for water security are available to the Nile states.

Tensions are rising between Egypt and Ethiopia over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam.

Ethiopia started diverting the flow of the river last week in preparation of the $4.2 billion project. Egypt’s irrigation and water resources minister, Mohammed Baheddin, provided assurances that a military solution to the Nile River crisis had been “ruled out.” However, Egyptian politicians were caught ­on tape last week discussing possible hostile acts against Ethiopia— from sending forces to sabotage the dam to supporting rebel opposition groups fighting the government in Addis Abba— in response to the dam’s construction.

 

This event is just one story in the greater saga of the Nile River Basin; relations have often been defined by enmity, competition, and perpetual threat of conflict among its 11 riparian states (those states situated on the banks of the river). It is quite apparent why all states have a stake in the Basin: covering 10% of Africa, it is a central source of water for more than 80 million people in downstream Saharan desert communities.

As a consequence of a generous allotment of water from the colonial-era Nile Waters Agreement (1959), 2 of the 11 Nile Basin states—Egypt and Sudan— have rights to 90% of the Nile’s water. Egypt effectively controls the river’s flow from the moment it crosses the border from Sudan and is captured in the High Aswan dam. The agreement has been a source of constant frustration among the upstream Nile nations. These riparian states blame the disparities in water allocation for the developmental malaise and economic stagnation that has plagued their communities. This discontent was reflected in a treaty signed by Ethiopia, Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, and Rwanda in May 2010, declaring their rights to a share of the river’s flow.

Egypt is the dominant player in this dilemma with a vested interest in the management of the Nile River. Water supply is a sensitive issue for Egypt: because of the country’s geographical deficiencies (it is 97% desert). It is extremely reliant on the Nile. The vast majority of its domestic food, water, and power come from the Nile. The picture is not getting any rosier. Currently, Egypt’s renewable water resources stand at 706 m3 per capita, leaving the country classified as “water poor.”

These insecurities are going to become more pronounced with time. Because of the incredible length of the Nile River (6850km), regional climate change will have an impact on its water supplies. Downstream portions of the river flow northward through the Sahara desert, meaning that for half of its journey the Nile travels through regions with effectively no rainfall. Should the water levels drop drastically, downstream communities that depend on the river’s waters for irrigation purposes are likely to face food scarcity challenges.

The deep complexities of the Nile River Basin – power and geographic asymmetries, vulnerability to climate change, pervasive underdevelopment, institutional inefficiency and corruption, and political volatility – are what have led to the concerns that the region is a likely site for future wars. UNESCO’s former Director-General, Federico Mayor, directly referred to the Nile when he claimed that “[m]ore than Petrol and land, it is over water that the most bitter conflicts of the near future may be fought.”

Looking at the situation along the Nile, it is easy to become disenchanted about the prospects for peace. Mainstream media primarily focus on the political animosity between Ethiopia and Egypt, painting a darker picture than is necessarily the reality. However, there are alternative frameworks that are proving to be effective in establishing sustainable peace along the Nile; the Nile Basin Initiative (NBI) shows the most promise.

The Nile Basin Initiative (NBI) is a partnership among the Nile riparian states that “seeks to develop the river in a cooperative manner, share substantial socioeconomic benefits, and promote regional peace and security.” Before the NBI’s creation in 1999, there had been no joint management or coordinated planning and development of the Nile. Many hoped that the creation of the NBI would remedy these issues. In some respects, it has led to a shift in the tone and the substance of state-to-state relationships along the Nile. The initiative is designed to reduce poverty in the region, aimed at achieving sustainable socio-economic development through responsible sharing of the Nile Basin’s common resources. The initiative now comprises all 11 countries in the Nile Basin. It has implemented 8 major projects with a total value of $900 million, and has 13 projects under preparation, with an expected value of $7-11 billion.

The Nile Basin Initiative is an innovative approach towards fair water allocation and the promotion of sustainable peace. There has been no outbreak of armed conflict between the riparian states since 1990, which suggests that the initiative has been successful in stabilizing the region to some degree. Therefore, despite recent speculations that war along the Nile is inevitable, it is quite apparent that this is not the case. NATO has stressed the necessity of good water management in the Nile region as a prerequisite for peace; the NBI is the foundation of this goal. What needs to happen next is an integration of higher state officials into the NBI framework. As Sundeep Waslekar, President of the Strategic Foresight Group, stated: “[the riparian states] need to go beyond water ministries which form the current Nile Basin Initiative to involve Heads of Government in a systematic way. They have the political capacity to negotiate large trade-offs. In the past, whenever top leaders intervened, it was possible to avert crisis.” Perhaps with 2013 being the International Year for Water Cooperation, political leaders will take heed of Waslekar’s advice.

About Emma Lecavalier

Emma Lecavalier is a MPhil candidate in International Relations at the University of Oxford (St Antony's College), where her research focuses on disaster relief efforts in complex political environments. More broadly, her interests include security, the environment, and international political theory. Emma holds an Honours B.A. in Political Science and Global Development from Western University. She has previously worked with the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation (Washington D.C.), and as the Vice President of Canadian Student-Young Pugwash. She can be contacted at emma.lecavalier@politics.ox.ac.uk.